2016, Ink on Cotton, 28″ x 22″ x 11″
I am caught in the present of my father’s past.
This photograph of my father as a child is foreign yet familiar in character; He sports his usual frown yet his playful attire is unexpected and stirs a curiosity that inspires me to investigate this persona. I want to unravel the compelling qualities of this photograph but I feel distant from it.
My father’s childhood not only feels physically distant in the scope of time, but also emotionally distant from my lack of knowledge and exploration. The intimate relationship I have with my father prompts me to delve into his childhood, using this photograph that was taken in September 1966, South Korea, as a gateway. My father was four years old when he took this picture – a moment too early for him to recall. This part of his youth remains mysterious even to him. The photograph seems simultaneously distant yet close and there is a compulsion that I cannot decipher. In an attempt to adapt this persona and recreate the un-recreatable, intangible past, I constructed the shirt worn by my father in 1966.
Seeing my father as a child, a child from a rural city in Korea, and seeing my father today as an intelligent, honest and respected diplomat traveling the globe, summons an eruption of sentiments: Pride, gratitude, respect, adoration.
Part of the foreign quality that I feel from the photograph stems from the innocence seen in the child; A child who has not experienced the world yet, who will soon be hard working and dedicated in studying to be where he is today.
It also produces sentiments for my country. I sense a pride for Korea – one that is similar to what I feel for my father – for slowly healing itself from the scars of the Korean War, for the socioeconomic progress it made until today.
It is these sentiments and development seen in both my father’s character and Korea that draws me close to the seemingly distant past. However, there is still a greater distance that needs to be reduced. In order to unravel the mysterious of the past, I obsessively documented my efforts to replicate this shirt and held psychoanalytic interviews with my father. By exploring my father’s childhood in Korea here in New York, I formed a relationship with the past. I had to weave through a variety of resources and services provided by the city to produce the shirt that is the token of his childhood. I encountered several technical problems and mistakes including issues with printing on fabric but nevertheless pursued the past. I engaged my university, where I stayed for hours to create the garment, New York, Korea, and Laos, which is where my father is currently living. A great deal was revealed to me about his childhood via the interviews, such as the context of the peaceful rural city, the anecdotes of my uncle stealing fish from the local vendor or how my father enjoyed studying. There were also disappointing interview outcomes but these in the end served to reveal my father’s current persona. For example, when asked about his intimate past, my father responded in a diplomatic manner that centered around Korea and his parent’s lives – almost as if to avoid giving away personal information. I formed a narrative upon these interviews applying experimental approaches such as speaking in Korean versus in English and asking about his surroundings rather than himself.
Through this assembled narrative and the garment that contains a retrospective aura, I discovered the impenetrable past.